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AJ100 #4: Felix Mara on Sheppard Robson

AJ100 Top 10 profiles: Sheppard Robson’s combination of function and form promotes longevity, wirtes Felix Mara

The north-London practice still invokes the principles of its co-founder Richard Sheppard, who set up the firm in 1938. His commitment to sustainability is enshrined in the Laugieresque image of its 1940s Jicwood Bungalow, partly built from aircraft components and lauded as inspirational sustainable design. The practice’s similar commitment to sustainability in architecture propels how its business operates. This has a resonance for partner Alan Shingler, head of sustainability and residential, who chairs the RIBA Sustainable Futures Group. Many practices find themselves pursuing sustainable architecture – which, to use Karl Popper’s expression, remains the profession’s main ‘problem situation’ – as well as long-term business plans resilient to boom and bust that address the aspirations of employees, clients and others. Sheppard Robson, however, strikes a balance between the two.

Shingler identifies two priorities in the practice’s current thinking on sustainable architecture. One stresses the need to prolong buildings’ life through retrofit or by designing them to last longer. Sheppard Robson, more notable for its new-build portfolio, has expanded its interior design section, ID:SR, to 45 staff, which integrates with its architectural ‘typology’ groups on certain projects, such as the Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall refurbishment, where CO2 emissions were cut by 40 per cent. The practice continuously develops its sustainable design expertise and includes staff with parametric environmental modelling skills as well as BREEAM and Ska Rating assessors. ‘We commission POEs where possible, but usually when like-minded clients are keen to understand how to improve performance and productivity,’ says Shingler. ‘These range from staff questionnaires and embodied versus operational carbon analysis through to full building performance appraisals.’

Sheppard Robson’s other priority involves integrating passive sustainable design, balancing efficiency, performance and function with form, beauty and style. This polarity defines its approach: an alternative axis might have juxtaposed efficiency with a conception of style emphasising charm or ethical qualities like freedom and generosity.

Sheppard Robson’s combination of function and form promotes longevity by avoiding efficient but unappealing buildings. The Siemens Middle East HQ in Masdar, its most accomplished project completed over the past year, avoids the trap of shallow commercialism this path could entail. Instead, its uncompromising reticulated form is born of parametric analysis and rigorous design rather than glib styling. ‘It’s the Middle East’s only LEED Platinum office building and sums up our sustainable agenda,’ says Shingler. Similar integrated sustainable design principles informed Waingels College, Barking Riverside and current projects: Finsbury Square, London Business School, Fitzroy Place and Citylabs.

Sheppard Robson’s sustainable business plan involves a cautious approach to growth, especially in overseas work, eschewing opportunities that contradict its principles. Working with the charity WaterAid, it is seeking ways of improving clean water supply and sanitation in rapidly expanding cities, including Lagos.

Change and promoting new talent are central to this office’s culture. It became an LLP in 2013 and some partners, including former creative director Tim Evans, became consultants. The present culture avoids pigeonholing staff, but gives them clear direction, emphasising process rather than stylistic preconceptions. With these strong foundations, Sheppard Robson is poised to build on expansion in its residential, mixed-use, university and public workover the past year and move forwards with due, rather than excessive, caution.

 

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